In Carlos Saura’s film Tango (1998), the chief character is making a musical about making a musical. The film is shot (by Vittorio Storaro, cameraman on The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, Apocalypse Now and many other movies) as a sort of designer’s dream, full of bright, shifting colours, ubiquitous mirrors, many set-pieces. It’s hard to tell whether any particular portion of the film is the private fantasy of the director, a slice of the daily life he is living, a section of the work imagined as finished, or an actual practice session on the set. The musical seems to be a movie, but it might be a stage extravaganza. Cameras keep hovering in the air, and there is mention of a screenplay; but then there are backers at run-throughs, and there is a grand dress rehearsal. The plot circles and repeats itself like a dance, and there is a strong implication that the sentimental lives of the characters have long been prefigured in old tangos, those acrid songs of twisted passion and recurring failure. Even Argentina’s Dirty War and its history of immigration are caught up in this music. The film has a ‘repression tango’ with danced torture and disposal of bodies; an ‘immigrants’ ballet’, where after a bit of Verdi’s Nabucco everyone starts to tango too.

Much of Saura’s best work – Blood Wedding, Carmen, El Amor Brujo – seeks and signals its way through music. But I had thought, until I saw it again, that his most famous film, Cría cuervos (1976), soon to have a run at the BFI, belonged to a period before he had concentrated on this method. It is true that the music in the movie, although by turns haunting and jarring, may seem incidental, a form of thematic accompaniment to images and story. But it is more than that. It is what the images and the story are not quite saying.

Paul Julian Smith, in a subtle essay accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD of the film, reminds us that it was shot as Franco was dying, and that the Spanish people then ‘looked back in fear and forward with uncertainty’. The house where almost all the action of the film takes place is ‘a transparent metaphor for the regime which … was still frantically putting up barriers to life beyond its bunker’. This historical memory is essential to the feeling of the film. When the children in it ask about their father’s military career after the Civil War they are told that he served in Russia with the Blue Legion – translated in the subtitles as ‘beside the Nazis’. The father is dead now, as is the mother. The three girls live in the care of their angry and lonely aunt and a sturdy housekeeper. The whole timeframe of the film, we learn, is contained within the school holidays. The girls have nothing to do but play in the closed house and neglected garden, with its deep, empty swimming pool. At the end of the film they are in their uniforms and arriving at school: out of the house and back to what we might take as normality, or at least regularity – the Spanish word ‘regular’ is used at a key point of the movie in its idiomatic meaning of ‘so-so’.

Given the context, this is a happy ending. But if the film belongs unmistakably to its time, it also translates easily to other periods and preoccupations. At its centre is Ana, aged eight if we set the film in the year of its shooting, the middle child among the girls, and the chief narrative focus is on what Ana sees – what a child may see of adult life if she wakes up at night or wanders into daylit rooms at the wrong moment.

At the beginning of the film a piano piece – a ‘song’ by the Catalan composer Federico Mompou – plays over the credits, and also over a long montage of photos, with comments in Ana’s handwriting. We then see a dark room in a comfortable though stuffy-looking house. There is a piano, but the lid is closed, the keyboard invisible. The Mompou tune continues for a while – we shall hear Ana’s mother play a piece of it to her in another night scene, which may be either a memory or a fantasy – and then stops. Murmurs of lovemaking come from another room. Ana appears in her nightdress, apparently just unable to sleep. Later we learn she is looking and waiting for something. There are strange groans from the room where the lovers are; the woman Ana’s father has been sleeping with dashes out of the house half-dressed. Ana goes into the room to find her father dead. She seems strangely peaceful and unperturbed. She strokes her father’s head, tries to straighten his hair, takes a used glass from a dresser and goes to the kitchen, where she carefully washes the glass and places it on a tray with other glasses, so that it will not seem to have been used. Her mother appears, and affectionately tells her it’s time to go back to sleep. She does, having paused only to chat with her black and white guinea pig, which she keeps in a cage close to her bed; just a little girl, just a moment of childhood.

In the next scene the three girls are having their hair brushed and being told they must kiss their father before they do anything else. This is worrying to our narrative sense, which is further rattled by our learning, in a quick conversation among the sisters as they go downstairs, that their mother is dead. Part of the mystery is solved when we see the father’s corpse laid out in a coffin in the parlour. This is the figure they are to kiss, and Ana refuses to do it. The mother … well, she appears throughout the movie, but she really is dead, and only Ana sees her and talks to her.

The mother is played by Geraldine Chaplin, who also plays Ana as an adult, appearing now and again to reflect on what seems to her a not fully comprehensible past, and by implication to assure us that she has survived and has a life. As the mother, Chaplin speaks in her own voice; as the older Ana she is dubbed by a Spanish actress. This bit of scrupulous realism – no reason why the Spanish Ana should grow up to speak like Chaplin – has an eerie effect, since it makes you wonder how many people there are here, and in spite of the voices it creates the suspicion they may be only one: just Ana, she is herself at two ages, and she is her mother. Ana is Ana Torrent, at the time one year older than her namesake in the movie, and already much admired for her performance in Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive. She is not so much the star of the film as its best, most eloquent mystery: often shot full face to the camera, dark eyes unblinking, face unmoving. But she is not stolid or even solemn; just attentive and secretive. She is never going to show us what she thinks or feels. Well, not never. When her aunt inadvertently tries to take the place of her mother, Ana says she wishes the aunt were dead. Just before that she had said she herself wanted to die – echoing a phrase she overheard her mother say. But she doesn’t want to die, and she doesn’t want her aunt dead. Even – and this, I suppose, is the film’s most extreme point of mystery and secrecy – when Ana tries to kill her aunt, as she thought she had killed her father, this is not attempted murder, only her desperate search for some kind of action, or for a language of childhood misery. The reason she hasn’t killed anyone has its own delicate, dark comedy. Ana is poisoning people with bicarbonate of soda, which her mother once told her, as a joke, was the worst of all poisons, powerful enough to kill an elephant.

With these blurred boundaries – a father apparently killed by a non-poison, an aunt apparently surviving a fatal dosage – we come close to the world of Tango, where two men who certainly know better fall for the illusion of art and believe that a loved woman who is acting dead really is dead. This is where the music is important, I think, and always was important for Saura. There are other pieces in Cría cuervos apart from the Mompou – a tinny Spanish pop number from the 1970s called ‘Porque te vas’, an old song that brings back former times to Ana’s grandmother – and it’s not a matter of style, or the lingering stories of a certain kind of music, as it is in Tango. But it is a matter of longing, of occasional happiness oddly mixed with grief, and of a recurring musical world in which death can be a game and a melancholy song, an unreal plan as well as the worst reality.

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